The Paradox of the Anomalous
The concept of fate is weird in that it implies twisted forms of time and causality that are alien to ordinary perception, but it is also eerie in that it raises questions about agency: who or what is the entity that has woven fate?
—Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie
Over the years I’ve thought about many of the experiences of my youth before such things as paranormal events were even registered in the culture I grew up in. With the divorce of my parents when I was twelve years of age I’d become a very young man, full of hate for both my father and for all forms of authority, a prime candidate for what our psychosocial police would label as mentally unstable and ready for a psychotic break. Raised within a deeply Christian worldview, the protestant world of Southern Methodist and Baptist I was already indoctrinated into apocalyptic and millennialist thought that was becoming more and more prevalent in that era. Yet, nothing prepared me for the darker influx of events I could neither understand nor control, and yet because of their power and my mistrust of authority was even more afraid to discuss with family or Church authorities. So I lived with the darkness for years, circling between anomalous events of affective madness, caught between seeking a rational explanation and a religious one. What if there were a new path forward that reduces this neither to secular-scientistic nor religious-mythic forms, but rather opens outward to what Quentin Meillassoux termed the “Great Outdoors” – a contingent opening that does not resolve experience of fact to sufficient reason or the exclusion of the middle but rather stays with the paradoxical and anomalous and listens to it on its own non-human terms rather than bringing it back into our circle of axioms, propositions, and philosophical frames of reference? What if dark realism is after all a non-human opening to a philosophy of the anomalous?
How does one confront the inexplicable? How deal with the hidden fields of force of dynamic anomalies of which one has neither a rational or religious conceptual framework within which to describe or explain it? And, most of all how does one resolve the notion that one is either going insane or that what is happening outside and inside, intrinsic and extrinsic is real or unreal? Caught in the anomalous paradox of deciding whether what is happening is part of the world, or just a manifestation of one’s own hallucinatory and deluded mind is something that haunts one for years. To this day a part of me is still undecided in the truth or validity of this experience, and yet now that I’m an old man (sixty-five) I realize that most of my search after the truth of it is what led me to explore the archives of our socio-cultural heritage, dig through reams of philosophy, theology, literary and scientific, magical and paraliterary texts of the Occult, Hermetic, Daemonic, and other strange, weird, eerie, fantastic, and uncanny modes of thought we as humans have left scattered across the ages.
Skeptical, atheist, and rational I developed my own cynical and nihilist stance out of a defensive need to protect myself against the emotional force of this past that had overwhelmed my psyche, and left deep emotional and physical scars on my mind and body. Because of this I’ve kept most of this darker aspect of my being and becoming hidden, locked away from myself and others; unwilling to divulge or confess its existence in my life. Even now to admit the darkness in one’s inner experience is to court the eruption of these strange and bewildering forces all over again. Yet, as I see our Western Civilization entering a moment of total socio-cultural breakdown, entering a state of madness and affective relations that seem to be leading to planetary civil war both within our own democracies as well as outward toward other societies I begin to suspect that what I experienced in my early to mid-life is part of a larger movement and schizophrenizing process (as Deleuze/Guattari suggested long ago) that has been going on for decades and is reaching a pitch and closure toward breakdown or breakthrough in our own time.
As Eugene Thacker tells us in the first of three volumes into the investigation of the horror of philosophy says “not only is there no distinction between the natural and supernatural, but that what we sloppily call “supernatural” is simply another kind of nature, but one that lies beyond human comprehension – not in a relative but in an absolute sense. Herein lies the basis of what Lovecraft called “cosmic horror” – the paradoxical realization of the world’s hiddenness as an absolute hiddenness.” Because of our fear and ridicule of the sacred and anomalous since the Enlightenment we’ve locked this part of human experience off under the appellation of the noumenal, telling ourselves that it is beyond thought so that it is of no concern to us. So philosophers and scientists were enabled to just let such anomalous experience be left in silence and ridicule as if it not only didn’t exist but was beneath investigation. So instead such anomalies went into the underground culture or counter-culture of the Occulture of literature and pop-culture as part of the leftovers of superstitious experience and madness of pre-modern thought-forms. Problem is that such worlds of the anomalous and the Outside have not gone away and in fact have become more and more present in our mass societies underground literature and mediatainment systems. Isn’t it time to rethink the noumenal, the Outside, the power of the strange, weird, and eerie worlds that are part of that unknown as unknown?
The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.
—H.P. Lovecraft, Notes on Literary Horro
Here in America, the good old U.S.A ( snicker!), the popular imagination – at least in film and TV, is littered with programs about ghosts, paranormal, aliens, UFO’s, anomalous creatures and hybrids, all the gothic and horror ridden underbelly of our nightmares and terrors of the unknown, forbidden, and superstitious worlds of the darkness. Why? While our urban and academic worlds are full of the cynical and rational skeptics of such anomalous events, and our mainstream elite media satirizes and displaces such thought as tomfoolery, the great underbelly of masses seems riddled and fascinated, horrified by the darker tendencies in these ancient superstitions. Films from slasher to ghosts, werewolves to vampires, Big Foot to Mothman, cartoon X-Men to Watchmen pervade our cultural dreamworlds.
As Claude Lecouteux, Demons and Spirits of the Land: Ancestral Lore and Practices reminds us “the imagination feeds on realia— transforming, transposing, and projecting them into the realm of myth, or maintaining them in the sphere of beliefs that are mistakenly labeled superstitions.” Claude Lecouteux was the author of several books on the study of popular beliefs regarding supernatural entities in the Middle Ages, arguing that many of them had their origins in pre-Christian pagan world views that were, of course, expunged, suppressed, and eventually moved underground in fairy tales, legends, popular lore and ballads, etc.. His domain of research includes magic, mythology and folk tales. As a historian of medieval history he began to discover a great many incongruous accounts of ancient pagan beliefs and customs still arising throughout the literature, folk tales, popular ballads and poetry, as well as in many of the various tracts of monks, nuns, and clergy of the period that have for the most part due to our scientific and rationalist cultural matrix been overlooked, dismissed, and left in a scholarly dead zone, hidden an almost invisible except in unread journals and thesis’s etc. As he stated in an interview: “from the 19th century, we find everything, but we have never tried to attend the historic and diachronic dimension, in other words over the course of a long evolution, beliefs, the believers and the impact on their daily lives. However, from texts and archaeological excavations carried out burial sites, I made a panorama specific and amazing stories of ghosts and ghosts in the middle ages. So, I thought it would interest students. Certainly my seminar deals with cultural anthropology, but as soon as I touch these topics here, I expanded my audience to students and teachers of other disciplines.”
He began seeing a pattern of notions, ideas, figures, tropes in the various traditions that had been suppressed and written out of most modern absorption of this sunken literature of the medieval world. Notions like reincarnation, ghosts: the return of the dead, vampires, were-wolves, strange and mythical land spirits, house spirits, etc. All of these the Catholic Church began to codify and in a Manichaean scheme to imprison in a discourse of hell, purgatory, paradise in which the various entities would forever be placed and the folk beliefs associated with the old notions forever silenced.
In the old Germanic imagery, Death is a temporary exile, from where you return you reincarnating in one of your descendants, provided that it is given your name! Otherwise, the child could succumb to a disease. That is to say the weight of beliefs! And the Church has tried to kill the ghosts! If you take the dialogues of Grégoire le Grand, in the middle ages, the ghosts are beside us, on Earth. We talk to them! Coming from a Pope, it’s amazing! Then, from the [?]emesiecle, the Church attempted to imprison them in his Manichaean scheme: the dead among the dead (hell, purgatory and Paradise), the living at home! Without bridge between the two worlds. Literature of Revelations speaks constantly of the manifestations of the dead from the living, even in the 13th century, but most of the time, in dreams. Otherwise, it’s purgatory, and they leave an indelible trace of their passage, like a burn for example. A tip: never shake hands with a ghost!
Lecouteux found texts that have not yet been “Christianized”, reflecting faithfully the mental concerns of people from the 10th to the 12th centuries, out of religious considerations. The Church having not yet managed to banish ghosts in the hereafter, nor to make their purgatory that associates the ghosts to souls in need, he was able to work with the literature of the dead and discovered in it that there was nothing separating or distinguishing the dead from the living: no boundaries of separation between the realms, no purgatory until after the introduction of Christianity. As he’d say
Ghosts have three dimensions: they talk, eat, copulate, mother, fight and enjoy revenge on their human doubles! It’s the true revenant! Because even the semblance of a living, the Ghost is an immaterial being that in the middle ages, mainly manifests in dreams or dreams. Even if in the morning when you wake up, you have evidence that he came to visit you, either by filing an object near you, or injuring you in your sleep! It is impossible to catch him to tackle or to kill… again! However, the revenant is a living death that can kill a second time! And even permanently, with certain methods…
Reading the above I kept thinking of Clive Barker’s famed Cenobites, those erotic monks of hell who torture their victims in love… In the lore of Scandinavia there was a good and bad death. As he’d discover you can’t forget those who come back. Because they have a reason to come back: the need to be Avenged, for they avidly lecture their descendants or to ask for favors, etc.. On the other hand, an idea that is dear and underlying studies he conducted was the notion that as long as the memory of the dead remains, the dead lives. “And when the memory disappears, the death is “mythisé”: if it has been a very good death, the dead one turns into another creature like an Elf and, if not, a Dwarf! Scandinavian texts were very explicit on these metamorphoses.”
Asked about the transcendent realms, of the beyond whether it was singular in the ancient lore like the notions of the Church:
No. There is not a single beyond. You have a fantastic and magical characters. An afterlife of the dead, that is not the same. Etc. It also distinguishes between beyond and other world, to avoid confusion, as far as possible. In-between, there are bridges which is in the transformation of the dead in mythical characters, such as the dwarf, Elves or fairies. For example, the white ladies are fairies, kinds of warning ghosts of death, called banshees in Celtic folklore. The legendary death, so it is a scary tackle world because information go in all directions. Real “mental archaeology” as calls it my friend Régis Boyer, the real work is to find the internal consistency of all these scattered elements. Like a gigantic puzzle that would have thrown in the air and which should now pick up the pieces. Why did we think? This is what interests me! And I finally found an explanation: a design of the very special soul, which derived directly from shamanism. That is to say if it’s old! From here, we kiss the multiplicity of souls in the body. And, according to the texts and vocabulary, which survived and allowed the body to live is his double!
So already we see prefigured many of the themes and tropes of the modern fantastic from Hoffmann to our current masters of the Literature Fantastique: doubles, plurality of souls, shamanistic time travel, other worlds, etc. He tells us in his travel around Europe that the “country that has the most ghosts, to the point that people are amazed to see an ethnologist studying the phenomenon and lore, it’s the Iceland!” After that, comes the Norway, the United Kingdom, and other countries. He sent a team of journalists who met a ghost hunter in Iceland, dressed for the ritual of expulsion of the ghost as if it were just a daily routine for the Icelander. Looking at American TV here in the States one finds the same thing with SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, or the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, etc.. These 21Century ghost hunters pursue haunted houses, office buildings, court houses, prisons, asylums, etc. in search of the living revenant. They use advance imaging cameras, infra-red, sound equipment, specialized magnetic and ion capturing systems, a whole gamut of electronics to supposedly capture ghosts in these localize places. And, millions of viewers tune in every week to see the latest apparition chase some hunter around, or manifest bite or claw marks on their chests or arms, completely convinced that their in touch with either dead people or demons. What’s even stranger they make a living doing this…
When asked about these hunters in Iceland he laughed and said:
Except that this isn’t the fantastic! This is part of their daily lives. There are several decades, in the North of Iceland, the Government had decided to build a hydro-electric plant. A public survey was conducted. And public opinion overwhelmingly objected to the project, arguing that it was going to bother the genius of the waterfall…
Asked if he is a believer in ghosts he said: “I’m a Cartesian! We require proof, and so far there is only things that go bump in the night of ghost hunters and fools.” But he adds, “I still believe in literature, in the old ways that seem to live and live in our old tales… so who can say for sure, heh? And, both gods, demons, and ghosts vanish from the mind of man if we neglect them, allow them to disappear from our books, our texts… only then do they truly die the second death, banished from memory and time.”
The Weird and Eerie: Cosmic Alienage and the Strange and Anomalous Outside
It is odd that it has taken me so long to really reckon with the weird and the eerie. For although the immediate origins of this book lay in fairly recent events, I have been fascinated and haunted by examples of the weird and the eerie for as long as I can remember.
—Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie
In the above passage the key term if fascination, this sense which we discover in the etymology of the word of bewitchment and enchantment of being under the spell of a “charm, spell, or witchcraft” else the sense of being attracted, delighted, are lured toward and attentive of something unknown, anomalous, and full of mysterious or numinous power: To fascinate is to bring under a spell, as by the power of the eye; to enchant and to charm are to bring under a spell by some more subtle and mysterious power. [Century Dictionary] As one scholar of fascination explains it,
Fascination is both culture-specific and culture-independent. What is considered forbidden or regarded as taboo is, of course, culture-dependent. These are, however, not static and immutable categories. On the contrary, the rapid changes of the category of the taboo are closely intertwined with the history of fascination which is both shaped by and shaping culture. While fascination draws on cognitive schemes and emotional tensions, it exceeds cultural specificities and temporal boundaries. This suggests that fascination can be conceptualised as the experience of thresholds and liminality caused by the cognitive irreconcilability of conflicting aesthetic categories and/or emotional reactions. Triggers of this cognitive disorientation include the antipodes of good and evil, terror and beauty, life and death, the familiar and the uncanny, the ugly and the beautiful. Consequently, fascination is at once an intra- and intercultural, a historical and transhistorical phenomenon. This is where literature comes into play. On the one hand, literature reacts to historical and cultural specificities, which it absorbs and reflects upon. On the other, it transcends cultural and historical boundaries, reflecting readers’ prejudices, emotions and cognitive processes. This is the dual interplay of literature with fascination.2
The notion above of the “the experience of thresholds and liminality caused by the cognitive irreconcilability of conflicting aesthetic categories and/or emotional reactions. Triggering cognitive disorientations including the antipodes of good and evil, terror and beauty, life and death, the familiar and the uncanny, the ugly and the beautiful. And, one might add, after Fischer – the Weird and Eerie.
The modern fantastic, the form of literary fantasy within the secularized culture produced by capitalism, is a subversive literature incorporating the anomalous and paradoxical. It exists alongside the ‘real’, on either side of the dominant cultural axis, as a muted presence, a silenced imaginary other. Structurally and semantically, the fantastic aims at dissolution of an order experienced as oppressive and insufficient. Its paraxial placing, eroding and scrutinizing the ‘real’, constitutes, in Hélène Cixous’s phrase, ‘a subtle invitation to transgression’. By attempting to transform the relations between the imaginary and the symbolic, fantasy hollows out the ‘real’, revealing its absence, its ‘great Other’, its unspoken and its unseen. As Todorov writes, ‘The fantastic permits us to cross certain frontiers that are inaccessible so long as we have no recourse to it’.
Ever since I was a young my mother read to us from the lore and myths of those old tales of Lang and Grimm at night. And, of course, like many there were the humorous and fabulous, the marvelous and wondrous adventures of Aladdin and Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights to while away the hours, but it was the darker worlds of ghosts, shadows, vampires, werewolves, doubles, partial selves, reflections (mirrors), enclosures, monsters, beasts, cannibals that sent shivers up my sister and my spines, those tales that both fascinated us and filled us with dread and terror that seemed to last into the nights and days, that seemed to haunt us long after the reading, and seemed at times to take on a life of their own; enter into our dreams and our day to day fantasy life, follow us like strange characters from another time, another world. This sense of being fascinated, bewitched, charmed and caught in a malevolent spell under the malicious sorcery of some strange force, some dark magick surrounding me in the invisible realms just outside my sight that draws me on as if something deep and uncanny within me seemed to belong there, live there, come from that space between things; some gap or void in the Real in which the dark ministrations of ancient powers seemed to exist just outside the veil of Reason and the comfort of home and the homely.
For Freud what is encountered in this uncanny realm, whether it is termed spirit, angel, devil, ghost, or monster, is nothing but an unconscious projection, projections being those ‘qualities, feelings, wishes, objects, which the subject refuses to recognize or rejects in himself [and which] are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing’.1 Through secularization, a religious sense of the numinous is transformed and reappears as a sense of the uncanny, but the psychological origins of both are identical. Literary fantasies, then, have a function corresponding to the mythical and magical products of other cultures. They return us to what Freud identifies as an animistic mode of perception, that thought process which characterizes primitive man at an evolutionary stage prior to his concession to a ‘reality principle’. Freud writes that we ‘attribute an “uncanny” quality to impressions that seek to confirm the omnipotence of thoughts and the animistic mode of thinking in general’ (Totem and Taboo, p.86).
Against Freud’s too positive reading of the uncanny from the side of reason, or his ‘reality principle’ is the work of Hélène Cixous who links a structural understanding of the uncanny as a mode of apprehending and associates fantasy to grotesque art: ‘The grotesque is a structure . . . it is the estranged world, our world which has been transformed’. The uncanny, however, removes structure. It empties the ‘real’ of its ‘meaning’, it leaves signs without significance. Cixous presents its unfamiliarity not as merely displaced sexual anxiety, but as a rehearsal of an encounter with death, which is pure absence. Death cannot be portrayed directly: it appears in literature either as figura (emblem) such as the medieval memento mori skeletons, or as mere space. This is materialized as a ghost: ‘the immediate figure of strangeness is the ghost. The ghost is the fiction of our relation to death made concrete.’ Das Unheimlich is at its purest here, where we dis-cover our latent deaths, our hidden lack of being, for ‘nothing is both better known and stranger to thought than mortality . . . “Death” has no shape in life. Our unconscious has no room for a representation of our mortality’. (Jackson, p. 68 see: Hélène Cixous. Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (The”Uncanny”):New Literary History, Vol. 7, No. 3, Thinking in the Arts, Sciences, and Literature. (Spring, 1976))
As Italo Calvino in his introduction to Fantastic Tales said
As it relates to our sensibility today, the supernatural element at the heart of these stories always appears freighted with meaning, like the revolt of the unconscious, the repressed, the forgotten, all that is distanced from our rational attention. In this we see the modern dimension of the fantastic, the reason for its triumphant resurgence in our times. We note that the fantastic says things that touch us intimately, even though we are less disposed than the readers of the last century to allow ourselves to be surprised by apparitions and phantasmagoria.3
For Mark Fisher what the weird and the eerie have in common is a preoccupation with the strange.4
The strange — not the horrific. The allure that the weird and the eerie possess is not captured by the idea that we “enjoy what scares us”. It has, rather, to do with a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience. This fascination usually involves a certain apprehension, perhaps even dread — but it would be wrong to say that the weird and the eerie are necessarily terrifying. I am not here claiming that the outside is always beneficent. There are more than enough terrors to be found there; but such terrors are not all there is to the outside. (Fisher, pp. 8-9)
A fascination with the Outside. H.P. Lovecraft would be one of the first to describe this fascination: “Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.”5 Fisher will argue that the weird is a particular kind of perturbation. It involves a sensation of wrongness: a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here. Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid. The weird thing is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate. (Fisher, p. 15)
This acknowledgement that our philosophical presuppositions and stance toward the anomalous and weird is invalid, not up to the task of describing or explaining the “weird thing” is at the core of my own involvement in a dark realism. These strange and anomalous experiences that have up to now been for the most part outlawed or explained as madness, abnormal, or psychotic breaks from the natural context of our socio-cultural experience is what has led me to this point of questioning the mainstream authorities and defenders of rational and scientific worldview. Instead of offering a legitimate investigation of these anomalous events that protrude on our experience from the Outside of that “cosmic alienage” of which Lovecraft spoke has driven me to discover in the vast literature of those counter-cultural theories and praxis from Renaissance philosophy, magical, and occult thinkers to our present time.
Over the coming months I want to begin an investigation into both the literature and the anomalous aspects of both our socio-cultural heritage and the influx of the strange, weird, and eerie in our popular culture in the present era. My goal is to seek out a non-knowledge and non-philosophy of the anomalous and paradoxical, one that does not reduce it to either the religious-mythic or secular-scientistic hermeneutical-interpretive and intentional phenomenological traditions of either Continental of Analytical schools of thought, but rather to produce a post-intentional non-philosophy (anti-philosophy?) that weaves but does not anathematize either of these modern and pre-modern theories and praxis but allows for a larger enframing and framework not based on axiomatic or suppositional conceptuality. Much of the current move out of the anti-realist tradition, and an opening to the ‘Great Outdoors’ (Meillassoux) of Being and Becoming (Process) seems to be heading in tendency toward such a non-theoretical praxis that thinkers such as Bataille once termed “inner-experience” and “non-knowledge”. Whether this is a viable path forward or not remains to be seen, and I’ll need to retrace this heritage down the rabbit hole of the counter-cultural drift of those thinkers who have as Deleuze termed it sought the “logic of sense”.
Although Difference and Repetition and Logic of Sense are heavily laden and academic works, written before his alliance with Felix Guattari, they are still the culmination of his investigations into the underlying traditions of empirical thought and his leaning toward the non-dialectical and anti-Hegelian systems vs. any Transcendental Idealism or Materialism in preference of a new empirical turn. As Deleuze would say of these works, they were “an attempt to jolt, to set in motion something inside me, to treat writing as a flow, not a code”. This anti-hermeneutical (not a code) notion of flow and de-territorialization would encompass his thought from that point forward. As Deleuze argued, this mode of becoming and thinking would lead to an “intensive way of reading, in contact, with what’s outside the book, as a flow meeting other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each reader, as tearing the book into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything, … this is reading with love [une manière amoureuse].” Deleuze’s notion of the Outside was “something more distant than the external world. But it’s also something closer than any inner world … managing to fold the line and establish an endurable zone in which to install ourselves, confront things, take hold, breath – in short, think. Bending the line so we manage to live upon it, with it: a matter of life and death.” (Negotiations 1971-1990 (1995)
- Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 (p. 80). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
- Baumbach, Sibylle. Literature and Fascination. PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2015 (Page 4).
- Italo Calvino. Fantastic Tales (Kindle Locations 32-36). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie (pp. 8-9). Watkins Media. Kindle Edition.
- Joshi, S.T. Collected Essays of H.P. Lovecraft. Hippocampus Press (August 20, 2008)